30 June 2009

Slow Food Seacoast Farm Day 2009

If you're in or around the New Hampshire area (or anywhere in New England) on July 12th, you might want to attend the Slow Food Seacoast Chapter's Annual "Down On The Farm" Potluck Picnic. It is being held, this year, at Osprey Cove Organic Farm, in Madbury, NH, which is owned by my sister-in-law, Anne Dickerson, and brother-in-law, Charlie Reid. It's going to be an activity-filled day of fun, food, hiking, berry picking, honey tasting, a homemade pie contest, and more. For more info, click here.

Anne and Charlie, who also own and operate Stone Wall Farm in Nottingham, NH, are known for their delicious, fresh, certified organic herbs and veggies (garlic!!) as well as for organic eggs that people wait in line to buy at several farmers markets. And their booth is a hit with young and old, since they usually bring a rooster and hen along with them.
Anne and Charlie at Portmouth Farmers Market

I hope to see you at the Slow Food Farm Day!

25 June 2009

Delightful Meals with Family & Friends

One of my favorite things in life is a protracted meal enjoyed with family and friends. I especially love this on a warm summer evening under the stars. Sunday afternoon meals are also great, as they can go on for hours. Interesting food, easy-drinking wine, multiple generations and an international component amongst the assembled company tend to increase the probability of good conversation, and the more the wine flows, the more the laughter grows as the hours progress. At our home in Massachusetts, two such meals - one Saturday evening barbeque and one Sunday lunch that stretched into dinner - stand out in my memory as being pretty much as good as it gets.

The Sunday lunch was several years ago with our now dear friends, Ayca and Scott, when we were just getting newly acquainted with each other. Ayca (with her heavy Turkish accent and buoyant attitude) and I had gotten to know each other slightly, but I'm not sure the guys had ever met. Our lunch was a long affair with their son, Orhan, and our kids, Madeleine and Drake. As we sat and ate in the sunroom at our old French farmhouse table, it became clear that we were meant to be friends. We had so much in common, so many of the same passions, and we all talked with such easy camaraderie, that the day passed by unnoticed.

The kids had long since tired of sitting at the table and had moved to the backyard where they were running through the hose, as it was a steamy day. Their laughter was matched by the excitement with which Jack, Scott, Ayca and I talked of many subjects all at once. Languid from several bottles of wine, and yet lively at the same time, we couldn't get over how close we felt - as if we had known each other for years.

So much time passed that eventually, we all decided it was time to eat again and prepared a dinner together since cooking was one of the passions we had just discovered we shared. Finally, darkness was complete and we were dining again, but now by candlelight. By the time our friends left, they had been at our house for nearly ten hours! And what an all-encompassing warmth was felt by all!

One impomptu barbeque began last summer when our oldest son, Giles, his wife Mia, and their daughter Taylor, visited us for the weekend and brought with them their new meat smoker.

Mia and Taylor

Never being shy when it comes to varieties and quantities of food, Giles bought several kinds of meat to smoke and began inviting friends to join us later in the day. We also invited some of our best friends who we know are always game for a last-minute invitation.

The preparation began around Noon, as smoking the various meats can take several hours. Naturally, once we all begin creating a good meal, we tend to start thinking of more and more items we'd like to prepare, either new experiments or tried and true favorites. Add to that the fact that most everyone in our family likes to cook, and you can imagine the pervasive air of pandemonium in the kitchen. However, in situations like this, we all agree that "the more the merrier" so on this day, as usual, the mood was festive.

We have a lovely spot in our upper garden, with a table, umbrella, lots of comfortable chairs, and a charming antique gazebo which serves these days as the site for our buffet spreads. The old garden also has a fountain gurgling into a small fish pool. The sound of the water splashing on the rocks in the pool is so soothing and always makes us feel miles away from civilization, since it drowns out any noise from the street on the other side of our house. What used to be a formal parterre has been turned into Jack's organic vegetable garden, so the whole little enclosed area has a kind of European feel to it.

Jack planned to grill his famous chicken with herbs, garlicky Italian sausage and corn on the cob. Salads and marinated olives, cheeses and desserts were concocted and carried to the upper garden.

Jack with his homemade charette de pique-nique

Throughout the afternoon, Giles smoked baby back ribs and big beef ribs with hickory chips. The pungent, smoky aroma was a mouth watering harbinger of delights in store for dinner. And we were not disappointed. When the meat was done, it literally melted in your mouth, juicy and falling off the bone, with incredible flavor - not overwhelming in smokiness, and really meaty.

Giles's smoked baby back ribs and beef ribs

Wines and beers were set in the fountain to chill. Friends started arriving around 5:30 and soon our backyard as well as our kitchen were humming with activity and happy chatter.

(Incidentally, the humming did not include many mosquitos, since Jack had mixed a strong solution of garlic tea and sprayed it around the garden earlier in the day. This is a terrific and chemical free way to keep pesky bugs away.)

Brett and Giles

Our ages ranged from 7 months old (our little granddaughter, Taylor) to 66 years old. I am a big believer in mixing all age groups. It brings so many more perspectives to the table than just one general age group can share. Our daughter, Madeleine, arrived with several old high school friends. Our son, Drake, was there with several friends who, frankly, consider our gazebo their home away from home.

Drake with Taylor

Several nationalities were represented, which is always more fun than not. Giles's friend, Brett, brought two adorable girls he had recently met in Tokyo, one of whom, Liz, from Brazil, took most of the photos seen here. I had a really terrific conversation about art with Shantell, an illustrator from London, who creates large-scale experiential multi-media presentations.
Liz and Shantell

There is a spontaneity that seems to make these kinds of gatherings come alive and this evening was no exception. I can't remember who first brought out a guitar, but eventually, Jack was playing his flamenco guitar, and Giles had brought out his own guitar (or maybe Drake's buddy, Austin, had his with him).

Jack and me

Drake, Jack and Giles

Eventually, both instruments were being passed around and informal jamming was a backdrop to our conversations. Jack, Giles and Drake played along with Austin and Brett.

Things really got lively when Renato, our Italian pal, decided that we should be dancing flamenco to Jack's accompaniment.

Renato and Dolores

Renato and his wife Dolores are superb dancers who fell in love with the tango in Argentina, and now have joined a group who dances the tango on a footbridge over the Charles River in Cambridge, whenever there is a full moon! In any case, Renato was not shy about trying the flamenco in our backyard. Soon, everyone was clapping and cheering.

Brett and Jack playing flamenco (as Renato tries to teach me some dance moves)


One of my favorite parts of evenings like this one is that as the clock advances into the wee hours, what was a rowdy party tends to mellow slowly, and there is much reflection along with sighs of contentment.

Austin and Giles

Lisa and Dan

Our friend Lisa will invariably state "We love you guys!" and by the time people are leaving to get home and crawl into their beds, a soft aura surrounds us all.

21 June 2009

The Francophile II: My Education in Nice - Falling in Love with France

One of my favorite lines is by Alice Waters when she talks about the year of eating her way through Europe - aka, her junior year abroad. I had a year like that - eating and otherwise immersing myself in French culture, all under the guise of academic studies abroad.

Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook

Of course, it goes without saying that one should study when studying abroad, but that is only a small part of the equation. Falling in love with a foreign culture is only possible by being in the culture - and not always in the classroom. This is what happened to me when I studied for a year at l'Universite de Nice. Sure, I went to classes (though certainly not all) and I passed my cours pour etrangers, but more importantly I LIVED there. I made friends, I found romance, I ate and traveled and spent every day soaking up what it is to be French.

Since Nice is the capital of the beautiful blue Cote d'Azur, I have often been asked if I spent a lot of time at the beach that year. I think my friends and I only went to the touristy beaches once.

I was much more likely to be found in a corner restaurant sampling local specialties, drinking wine and people watching. That year, I fell in love with France, the French, one Frenchman in particular, and with myself as a newly emerging sophisticated and worldly young woman.

This was the year that changed my life. I learned to appreciate the world around me through what my senses were taking in - the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of daily life in France. I fell in love with a way of enjoying life - la joie de vivre.

Although our little house had only a two-burner hot plate, no oven and a tiny refrigerator, I cooked a lot of ratatouille, among other meals. Who needs a big fridge when you can buy what you need daily for that evening's dinner? And frankly, there was never anything leftover to be saved, after meals!

I was enchanted with the idea of walking four blocks to the little epicerie where madame grated just enough cheese to top our evening meal. I had never previously really considered that grated cheese came any other way than pre-packaged in plastic. But here in Nice, madame took some translucent white paper, rolled it into a cone shape, held the cone under her grating machine while the cheese sifted down into it, folded the top paper over to make a neat little package. After she weighed it, we paid her and left with our petit paquet. Nothing could be more fresh than that!

Of course there was always plenty of fresh basil which is necessary for both ratatouille and soupe au pistou.
Years later, when Jack and I took a week of cooking classes with Patricia Wells at Chanteduc, her home in Provence (more on that life-changing experience in future posts), we learned to make the best versions of these two dishes that I had ever tasted.

PATRICIA WELLS AT HOME IN PROVENCE: Recipes Inspired By Her Farmhouse In France

PATRICIA WELLS AT HOME IN PROVENCE: Recipes Inspired By Her Farmhouse In France

And yet, those college meals I had prepared in Nice were so memorable and romantic because of the very newness, the wonder of discovering such fresh vegetables, herbs, cheeses and breads at the local markets just blocks from my home there.

A random list of some of the other incredible eye-opening discoveries I made that year includes:
  • Living in a present that is always surrounded by antiquity creates soul-satisfying comfort.
  • Eating slowly and relishing each bite makes every meal so much more pleasant.
  • Candlelight is always romantic.
  • The right music in any situation is also romantic...from a samba's smooth saxophone to raucous Rachmaninoff to Stevie Wonder to folk songs at a local fete.
  • A home decorated with the influence of centuries is both intellectually stimulating and cozy.
  • Pate de Fois Gras melts in your mouth with a flavor that is at once pungent and sublime.
  • Both men and women can be sexy wearing perfume (but never at breakfast).
  • Nothing beats fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the market only hours after they have been picked.
  • The four-foot thick stone walls of ancient farmhouses contain untold histories of generations, often of one family for hundreds of years.
  • Driving through the hillsides of Provence, you can smell the herbs growing in abundance all around you - unkempt wild bushes of lavender, thyme, rosemary. You know the local meat and cheeses will taste of these herbs.
  • The colors everywhere you look are warm, natural and satisfying because they come from the local earth.
  • The contrast of fields of deep purple lavender flowers against yellow and rust colored ochre, silver green olive trees and incredibly blue sky is both peaceful and exhilarating.
  • There is nothing anachronistic about hiking in the hills and drinking cheap wine with an illiterate shepherd by day and then sipping fancy aperatifs at a discoteque that evening.
  • Tiny fraises des bois (wild strawberries), purchased at the market during their short season, are as delicate, yet striking in their flavor as they are fleeting.
  • Life should really be felt - the damp coolness of the grass under your feet on a hot day, the breeze on your face and arms as you motorcycle through the hills of Provence, the heaviness of a hand-blown wine glass from Biot, the delicate film under your wrists of an organza tablecloth, the rough texture of old cotton sheets, your own skin in the Provencal sun.
  • Garlic enhances almost anything...as do lemons and thyme. The aromas of these gifts from the earth are as uplifting as their explosions in your mouth.
  • Life is poetic if you allow it to be.
  • La joie de vivre is sensual.
In the posts to come, I will talk about all these sensual joys and more. Although I personally enjoy all of these pleasures most when I'm in France (obviously I just love being there), my husband Jack is correct in pointing out that when you know how to appreciate life as the French do, you truly can make it happen wherever you are - you can bring France to you. In my next post, I'll write about a wonderful meal we had with friends and family here (stateside) last summer.

14 June 2009

The Francophile I: France in the Dreams of My Youth

Looking back on my childhood, I cannot pinpoint when I first became a Francophile – a lover of France and the French. Peut-etre, I was born with it in my soul.
Some of my earliest memories, however, are of my completely American father teaching us French phrases, and rolling his r’s in a way that I only learned years later, was definitely not your high-brow 16th arrondissement pronunciation! Speaking French captured my fancy, even before I could speak English with much grace. My dad also had a love affair with all things French, which may have come from his own father having been stationed there during the WWI, and from learning the French language over the years at school. Spoken French is so beautiful, I don’t know how anyone could not be wooed by it.
Granddaddy, my dad’s father, taught me some French songs when I was no bigger than a grasshopper, and which I found out years later, were rather inappropriate for a delicately nurtured young lady! Now the truth is, the old gentleman was just that, a conservative, upright gentleman, who also taught me how to curtsy, and expected excellent manners at all times. I can only guess that it was a bit of harmless comedy to see me, a totally clueless little American girl, repeating songs that were written by soldiers in the red-light district of Paris in the swinging days following the turn of the last century. I admit that at age four, I could sing Hinkey Dinkey Parlez-vous. So great was my delight in this song, that I can still remember snippets of it today, nearly 50 years later.
Another influence was my French alphabet book, which held so much of an aura of magic for me, that still today, when I leaf through it, I feel there is some mystery in its pages. I can almost smell and taste my childhood interest in things French.

As it turns out, the book, entitled A FRENCH ABC, is a wonderful period piece, published just after WWII, with references and drawings evoking that era. (Notice on V for Victory, that the red poster is in German, with swastikas.)

My favorite page was P, with the artist at his easel.
Grandma, my mom’s mother, was French Canadian and had grown up speaking French – now that was cool! For years I was under the mistaken impression that Grandma’s father had been a fur trader, going back and forth between Canada and the United States although my Mom has confirmed that he was actually a farmer. In fact, I still imagine this ancestor with a raccoon hat on his head, striped tail trailing down his neck, a pelt of some other animal draped over his shoulders. (Oui, je suis depuis toujours tres romantique!)
In fifth grade, at a girls’ school known for excellent departments in both French and Latin, I began my true academic study of the French language. Over the years, our wonderful teacher, Madame Reynolds, along with her Mauger textbooks, would be a great influence on me. She imparted her love, not just of the language, but of French customs as well.

I cannot to this day, think of any meal, without picturing the diagram in one early Mauger depicting the correct order in which the French would eat their meals: always soupe before poisson before viande, (and white meat before red meat), salade after the main meal, followed by fromage, etc. There were numerous courses. In fact, if anyone besides Gargantua has ever eaten such quantities as I imagined the French did – at every meal, mind you – they wouldn’t have been able to move from the table. And yet, I still admire this imagined virtuosity, which in my mind, allowed the French to consume huge volumes of food, and to simultaneously relish every bite. (There is some real truth in this; just not to the extent I used to believe! And while the French do eat numerous courses, they have sensible portions for each one.)
One of my earliest tastes of “French cuisine” was a party we had in French class one day, to which Madame Reynolds brought little silver wrapped cubes of La Vache Qui Rit cheese, accompanied by the closest thing you could find to French bread in Minnesota in the 1960’s (same shape as a baguette, but there most of the similarities ended) and – in lieu of champagne – Catawba juice. We girls were in what we imagined to be French heaven!

A few years later, Madame Reynolds would lead a group of us – by then giggly and gawky teenage girls – to Paris, where we had our first real French food. We were blown away by everything we tasted, from a crepe suzette at a sidewalk vendor, to a grand dinner at Lasserre, where the gorgeous painted ceiling rolled open to reveal the star-spangled night sky.
Most memorable of those first French meals, though, was upstairs at a small and cozy restaurant in the 5th, called La Petite Hostellerie. I can still taste in my memory the French onion soup topped with thick, melted cheese, with its surprise slice of French bread floating in the soup beneath the cheese. At this meal, I also tasted my first Peche Melba. This trip was more than 36 years ago – what a lasting impression these meals created to have stayed so vividly with me after all this time!

That trip filled me with a sense of magic, which I know is felt by a lot of visitors to France. Soon after checking into our hotel, on the rue des Carmes in the Latin quarter, a few us decided to venture out and see a bit of the neighborhood. We were so naïve that when we first laid eyes on Notre Dame cathedral, we all asked each other several times if we thought that this could possibly be the REAL Notre Dame! Every time I have returned to Paris in the intervening years, the same magic returns to me.

12 June 2009

Slow Food and Sensory Awareness

It’s easy to understand why the Slow Food movement has gained such worldwide popularity over the past two decades. So many of us have gotten used to going through life by just going through it, as opposed to actually living it. Slow Food seeks to enlighten people about the joys of sitting down to a leisurely meal with family and friends, and really enjoying every aspect of that entire experience, as opposed to rushing through meals. According to USA Today, “Slow Food aims to be everything fast food is not.”

We (and I think most especially, Americans) are all realizing that faster is sometimes but not always better, and that we can miss a lot of life-fulfilling happiness if we just rush from one thing to the next. My husband, Jack, has been saying, for 20 years now, that computers have speeded everything up so fast for us, that instead of always being a convenience, they have created a sense of “need it right now” which is unrealistic in many arenas. One of these arenas is food.
I believe that slowing down and paying attention to sensual pleasures is not just important for our enjoyment of food, but for every single aspect of life. We will never be able to slow down our instant communications, and we really wouldn’t want to. Immediate texting, email and cellular words back and forth are a boon. However, these conveniences should be in addition to a life worth living to the fullest – not instead of it. Even with instant communication abilities, we should all be aware of our own and everyone else’s need to take time to think about our responses, not just to interpersonal and business communications, but to our own communications with ourselves – brain to soul.
Much as I dislike how cliché it has become, the expression “Take time to smell the roses” should be a personal motto for all of us living in a fast society. Of course this expression stands for so much more than smelling. It is about noticing all of our senses, and furthermore, paying attention to what our senses are telling us!
La joie de vivre is about really paying attention to every sensory piece of information our brains receive, and making the most of it all, sensually. How many of us truly notice the sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes that make up our daily lives? Our brains constantly receive this information, but I believe most of us instantly and thoughtlessly relegate the data to some back storeroom in our brains, never to be seen or heard from again. What a sad waste! We miss so much pleasure by ignoring this information. It is time, now, for us to take notice of our senses, and to live every moment in full awareness of what they are telling us.
Easy? No. Worth it? Absolutely! We must retrain ourselves to notice things we have bypassed since we were children – when we did pay attention to what our senses were conveying to us.
It’s probably easiest to start with food. A great inspiration would be this Fennel & Orange Peel Soup recipe from one of my favorite blogs, Chocolate & Zucchini.
The next time you sit down to a meal, even if it has to be “on the fly”, enjoy the colors and shapes of the food, first. Then, close your eyes and breathe in the aromas and think about the tastes (always a mélange of various elements) of what you are eating. Notice the texture of the food. Is it crunchy or smooth and how does it feel on your tongue? Don’t forget sound – can you hear it? (Isn't the sharp crack of a raw carrot is an integral part of the carrot experience?) All of these elements add distinct pleasure to the eating experience and transform it from being just a necessity, to a nice addition to one’s day. When we do this, we add time to our lives, instead of losing it.
Of course, it’s always preferable to eat slowly, savoring your food, and it’s best in the company of pleasant people who also appreciate the food. This is Slow Food’s message.
After you have gotten in the habit of eating to enjoy, you can start to enhance other areas of your life, using the same senses. Recognize and contemplate your sensory information and you will live a full life.
Share on Tumblr